In the 2004 movie I, Robot, Will Smith stars as a human cop living in a world increasingly being automated and dominated by robots. From personal assistant robots to self-driving cars, everything is computerized. While many aspects of the film are still very far from reality, one aspect is becoming more viable everyday: self-driving cars.
Time Magazine included an article in the March 7th edition titled “The Increasingly Compelling Case for Why You Shouldn’t Be Allowed to Drive”. Two facts were quickly pointed out: that self-driving cars are here, and that they’re better drivers than humans. The Google car is fairly well-known as an example of this, but all Tesla Model S cars can now self-drive due to a software update in Fall 2015. And computer drivers, which never get distracted and have the ability to synthesize thousands of more data points than do human drivers, have the potential to drastically reduce or eliminate the nearly 33,000 annual US deaths due to automobile accidents. According to the World Health Organization, 1.3 million people die in car crashed every year. In the US, the cost in damaged vehicles annually is estimated at $836 billion. And, according to the Nationals Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the average American worker spends 42 hours – essentially one working week – per year stuck in traffic.
All of these issues could be seriously alleviated or eliminated by a switch to self-driving cars. In terms of efficiency alone: what if your morning commute was now able to be time to answer e-mail, eat breakfast, or read the paper? And what if you could sleep during that 10-hour road trip to see family for the holidays, and arrive in the morning decently well-rested? Or how circling forever on a cold, rainy day to find a parking spot downtown? With full automation, the car could drop you off at the doorstep, go park itself, and come back to pick you up when signaled by your smart phone.
But what about the trade-off? Autonomy and independence are deeply-held American values. The ability to own a vehicle and travel at will is not very far removed from those values. While Apple is being pressured by the FBI to open a ‘back door’ in iPhones, the safety vs liberty debate is swirling in American discourse, particularly given that this is a Presidential election year. Back to I, Robot, Will Smith’s character is deeply unsettled by the fact that his automated car is, by virtue of necessity, linked into ‘the grid’ and online at all times, communicating with other vehicles, servers, and independent agencies. As of now (with some exceptions based on features), the vehicle itself is not tracked in real-time by any organization or agency. The open road and car are a part of the American psyche and culture, one that will only reluctantly be relinquished. As mentioned in the Time article, the first step is to make self-driving cars legal throughout the country (only 4 states currently allow such vehicles). But then the question becomes whether or not manual driving will remain legal once there is a majority shift to automation. Having a human operate a 2-ton hunk of metal at high speeds around other people clearly seems dangerous. But then again, there’s no feeling like it.